The war compressed Italy’s margins of manoeuvre – Italy was forced to unambiguously take sides – the Russian attack on Ukraine has erased the illusion that Rome could mediate between East and West – Draghi and Meloni have conformed to the Euro-Atlantic line
1. ITALY BELIEVES THAT IT HAS, by its own political-strategic culture, a vocation for dialogue and mediation. There have been neither few nor brief phases in its recent history during which its rulers have cherished the dream of making Italy a bridge between East and West. It happened, for example, during the Cold War, when Rome developed its own Ostpolitik towards the regimes beyond the Iron Curtain. Though Rome’s Ostpolitik could not compete with Bonn’s, it nevertheless made the American administrations of the time wrinkle their noses. Giulio Andreotti’s secret diaries (published a couple of years back as I Diari Segreti) attest at several points how difficult it was to carry out international action of this kind without arousing suspicion. They give an account of the frequent interlocutions with the American embassy in Rome, in the context of which the late Christian Democrat statesman did his utmost to reassure Italy’s major ally as to the actual scope of Italy’s initiatives. This tradition was also invoked after the fall of the Berlin Wall and not only in relation to Moscow, but also in much more distant chessboards. At one point, Lamberto Dini even envisaged a role for Italy as an outrider on Washington’s behalf vis-à-vis those regimes with which it was more difficult or inconvenient for the United States to establish direct relations, such as North Korea, Libya, or Iran. In order to gain merit, we tried to put ourselves forward as facilitators of subsequent understandings.
More generally, the Italians tried to turn in Italy’s favour their reluctance to identify adversaries and enemies on the stage of international politics, pretending to be everyone’s friend, in order to carve out a noble function that would raise the prestige of their country and its diplomacy. In some circumstances it worked, in others it did not, resulting in image damage whenever their ambiguities sowed doubts about Italy’s reliability. The difference in the outcomes depended not so much on the calibre of those who tuned this policy to the needs of the moment, but on the context in which they attempted to do so. In practice, a state entrenched in the western security system could only operate as a neutral country when the climate was overall relaxed and somewhat fluid, that is to say, when polarisation was attenuated and the Schmittian friend-enemy contraposition blurred. Believing that history was really over, in the years of the so-called Second Republic it was assumed in Rome that the could act as Russia’s advocate in the West and later, when things started to go wrong, defend the West with the Russians. They invested in the reconciliation between Moscow and Washington, hosting in 2002 at Pratica di Mare the summit that would sanction the point of maximum rapprochement between the Atlantic Alliance and the Russian Federation, in the belief that it could be the starting point for a progressive integration of the Kremlin into the Western world. The Italians did not realise, that time, that they were merely supporting players in a process that had its origin not in their diplomatic plots, but in the American need to obtain the cooperation of Moscow in its military campaign against international terrorism and in Russia’s symmetrical need to make up for the excesses of its Chechen wars. Hence the obvious astonishment that Russian aggression against Ukraine on 24 February 2022 caused at all levels in Italy, highlighting the limits of a certain way of understanding Italy’s presence on the international scene.
2. Astonishment was compounded by disappointment. Once again, in fact, the Italians had tried to interpose their good offices by resorting to daring diplomatic ploys that should have induced the Russian president to suspend or postpone indefinitely his decision to invade Ukraine. What they thought had to be done, the then Prime Minister Mario Draghi stated decisively in his end-of-year press conference on 22 December 2021: ‘We must keep President Putin in a state of engagement’ – i.e. anchored at the negotiating table, while, among other things, obtaining from the latter an immediate response at short notice. Leveraging Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was probably opposed to the military adventure that the Kremlin strongman was embarking on, the Italians even managed to organise a mission at the eleventh hour for their Premier, to take place on the very day the attack was to be launched. They let everyone know, even with parliamentary interventions by the then Foreign Minister, Luigi Di Maio, that while Italy reaffirmed its adherence to the ‘open door’ policy, recognising the sovereign right of anyone to apply for NATO membership, Rome would in any case take into account Article 10 of the Atlantic Pact, which subordinates the acceptance of any request to the assessment of the effective contribution to collective defence by the requesting state.
To prepare for Draghi’s visit, Mr Di Maio travelled to Moscow on 17 February 2022, stirring a sensation in Washington. Indeed, at a press conference the following day at the White House, a journalist asked Deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh whether the Italian Premier was on the verge of breaking the anti-Russian front because of Rome’s difficulty in supporting sanctions that could affect gas.
Italy therefore even seemed to be in the balance: another element that contributes to making Mr Putin’s choice to resort to force rationally incomprehensible, senseless even if it had been crowned with success, because of the negative consequences that Russia would inevitably have had to endure in terms of sanctions and international isolation. On the other hand, on the eve of the unilateral recognition of the independence of the two separatist republics that had arisen in the Donbas, the Kremlin had within reach the ‘Sunzi victory’, i.e. the one achieved without firing a shot that should be pursued by every wise strategist. It is worth remembering today how, just as American and British intelligence feared that a Russian attack was imminent, the United States, Great Britain, and Canada abandoned Mr Zelenskyj to his fate by withdrawing all their military advisers from Kiev and demonstrating to the Ukrainian president the limits of the Euro-Atlantic option that his country had decided to pursue. Moscow also seemed on the verge of granting Mr Draghi, the Western European banker and politician perhaps closest to the democratic circles of the American East Coast, the privilege of bringing home an agreement that would have averted war, thus dividing NATO and the European Union internally.
3. It was precisely from the tilt towards Moscow, linked to the attempt to avoid conflict and gain prestige for the country and its then Prime Minister, that Italy was inexorably forced – already in the aftermath of the controversial Russian decision to recognise the self-styled republics of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent entities – to implement a spectacular U-turn. Basically, a year ago, something took place that was very similar to what happened in November 2011 when, with the “spread” (the gap between the yield of Italian bonds and bonds of the German benchmark) at 500 basis points, Silvio Berlusconi was succeeded as Prime Minister by Mario Monti, who chose Italy’s ambassador to Washington, Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, as Foreign Minister and called Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, then chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, to head the Defence Ministry. Without changing the government structure this time – it was impracticable to change during the epidemic crisis – Mr Draghi himself piloted the turnaround, immediately complying with the decision made on 22 February 2022 by the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to interrupt all high-level contacts with the Russian Federation.
In fact, speaking the next day in the House and Senate to report on the latest developments, Minister Di Maio enunciated the same line adopted by the United States, just as Moscow was still describing Mr Draghi’s visit to the Kremlin as an open dossier. This was followed by the Russian Foreign Ministry’s irritated communiqué on Italian cocktail diplomacy and, in a Rossini-like crescendo, by the statement made by Mr Di Maio, broadcast on television, in which he emphasised that an abyss existed between Mr Putin and any beast, and precisely the Russian leader was the atrocious one. In Parliament, the Premier acknowledged some mistakes of the past and plotted the course that would lead Italy to side with Ukraine and against the aggressors.
Rome adhered to the imposition and enforcement of sanctions decreed against Moscow by the European Union. Furthermore, on 28 February 2022, the Council of Ministers passed a decree-law that authorised the government to provide Ukraine with military aid for its defence until 31 December. It was on the basis of this measure that five inter-ministerial decrees were then issued on the very subject of sending armaments to Kiev.
A sixth such administrative act was in the pipeline at the time when the new Defence Minister, Guido Crosetto – successor to Lorenzo Guerini, who had meanwhile returned to the chairmanship of the Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Republic (Copasir) – appeared before the assemblies of House and Senate on 13 December to announce the Meloni Administration’s intention to extend by one year the policy of military support to the Ukrainian resistance. When Mr Crosetto asked the two Chambers to endorse this, more deputies and senators responded positively than those who support the current centre-right majority.
The debates that took place in the two branches of Parliament were substantially identical, resulting in the discussion of no less than five similar acts in both Chamber of Deputies and Senate. To facilitate maximum convergence between the political groups, the technique of split voting on individual motions for resolutions was again used: this mechanism allows each deputy or senator to not vote for one or more undesirable parts of the individual devices, while still approving overall the piece of legislation.
At the end of the day, both the text presented by the groups making up the current centre-right majority and those presented by the Democratic Party and the parliamentarians belonging to Azione/Italia Viva (the aggregation led by Carlo Calenda and Matteo Renzi), passed the scrutiny of each Chamber. However, the documents submitted to the parliamentary assemblies were rejected by the Green and Left Alliance, which called for a drastic change of approach, and the Five Star Movement, which instead demanded a shift to detailed authorisation by parliament for any future decree on sending arms or ammunition.
In the course of the debate, the Five Star Movement also raised the issue of the secrecy surrounding the composition of aid packages, pointing out that at least Germany had disassociated itself from this practice. In his reply to individual speeches, Defence Minister Crosetto however confirmed both the option in favour of secrecy with regard to the composition of the deliveries and the government’s commitment to update the parties on the sensitive details of the deliveries through the ‘protected’ headquarters of Copasir. Moreover, according to indiscretions gathered by the press and informally confirmed by Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, at least one of the five Samp/T batteries supplied to the Italian Army will soon be on its way to Kiev. Information also comes from the Russians, who never miss an opportunity to let the Italians know when and which Italian-made or Italian-origin materials fall into their hands on the battlefield. It has also transpired with certainty from other open sources that the Ukrainians received PhZ2000 self-propelled vehicles, multiple Mlrs rocket launchers, and artillery pieces from our country.
4. Italy will therefore continue to apply the sanctions imposed against Moscow and to support Kiev in the ways and forms that will be decided by the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union. This, notwithstanding the fact that this line creates discontent in some sectors of the Italian political system that nevertheless support it, and is not appreciated by a good part of our public opinion, which is more sensitive than others to the appeals of pacifism or anti-American ideological prejudice.
To the continuation of the conflict – which according to the government’s critics would also be allowed by the guaranteed arms supplies to Ukraine – many also attribute the recent rise in energy costs, even though this depended in no small measure on the consequences of the massive liquidity injection decreed by the Fed and the ECB in 2020-21 to counteract the economic effects of the epidemic. Others, however, complain about the loss of profit opportunities caused by the disruption of trade with Russia. Every now and then, some also publish estimates on the size of the shortfall in turnover that could be attributable to Italy’s position in the war, without ever questioning the cost that our country could have paid by adopting a different attitude. Instead, it is important to make this calculation, in order to better understand the true nature of the ‘external constraint’ that compresses Italy’s sovereignty when choices as to which side to support are involved.
Indeed, interest and its magnitude do not admit of exemption. In 2023 alone, Italy will have to roll over more than 410 billion euro of its maturing public debt, to which will be added another 105 billion of new debt. Since Italy is in a monetary area governed by an independent Central Bank which is forbidden from covering State deficits by issuing paper money, this money will have to be raised entirely on the market, turning to small and large savers around the world to buy our bonds, either directly or through larger investors, at an interest rate that depends on the creditworthiness of the Republic. To convince them to buy without paying an exorbitant remuneration, it is essential to protect the country’s reputation. Foreign policy is one of the criteria that contribute to a country’s reputation.
It takes little to lose the confidence of the stock exchanges. A coordinated attack by a few influential publications with global resonance – such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist (you will certainly remember the ‘unfit’ reserved for Berlusconi on one of its famous covers) – is enough to scare away potential buyers. This would push the above-mentioned “spread” sky-high and bring the Italian Treasury closer to the spectre of default, leading to the country’s collapse, with the blocking of every public service, from hospitals to schools, from courts to police stations. It is for this compelling reason, and not out of servility, that especially in times of crisis, Italy’s national interest cannot be defined differently from those of the strongest financial and media powers on the planet with which we are allied, without paying an unsustainable price. This circumstance explains why, while a war rages on involving Russia as aggressor state, Italy’s margins for action and initiative have disappeared. We are not Hungary, which has a sovereign debt at 75 per cent of GDP and boasts of an independent, and if necessary uninhibited, monetary policy, the manifestation of which is a rate of inflation that is now running at 20% per annum. With a debt now at 150% of its GDP served entirely by the world’s private savings, Italy cannot afford waltz laps à la Orbán. The precedent of 2011 has been metabolised by all those who were protagonists of that season and now find themselves back in the control room. And indeed, after the announcements made by Guido Crosetto in Parliament, the decree-law issued to extend military support to Ukraine until the end of 2023 was approved by the Senate and House without any problems. Even though high moral principles were invoked – the same principles that, not infrequently, are ignored in other contexts – the decision toward this end was based on national interest and this will dictate the continuation of this policy until peace returns.
This essay originally appeared on Limes n. 1/2023, «La guerra continua».
Translated into English by Mark A. Sammut Sassi